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Travel

London Underground: Exploring the strangest subterranean sites

@SamWKemp

London is something of a layer cake. The nature of history is that major cities are the subject of destruction. Whether it was destruction from Celtic rebels, fire, or ariel bombardment, with each devastation, London was rebuilt and a new layer was added, pushing its history deeper and deeper into the earth.

The capital has been occupied by humans for over 2 million years. As a result, it features a dizzying variety of subterranean structures, ranging from the days of the Roman conquest to the reign of the Anglo Saxon kings and beyond.

But many of the sites on this list didn’t simply slip beneath the foundation of new structures, they were intentionally hidden. Why? Well, if you’ll forgive me for answering a question with a question: why do we bury anything?

For humankind, the underland has been used to hide that which we deem valuable, but also that which we would rather forget or keep hidden. In this way, the world beneath our feet is far more revealing than the world of the living because it is a realm that is imbued with our fears, hopes, and values. Below, you will find a selection of subterranean sites around London that are open to the public. Happy exploring!

Chislehurst Caves

Location: Caveside Cl, Old Hill, Chislehurst BR7 5NL
Website: Chislehurst Caves

Located just beyond the outer fringes of the capital, Chislehurst Caves ties together over 2000 years of English history. This man-made cave system is said to go back to the days of the Saxon kings in 400-500 AD, while others suggest they could be more than 8000 years old.

It’s most likely that the caves were originally dug for chalk and limestone during the formation of London. They were first opened to the public in 1900, at which point the guides began telling stories of smugglers, highwaymen, and famous historical figures such as Shakespeare all using the caves as a hiding place at one point or another.

Then, in the 1920s and ’30s, the cave system was used to grow mushrooms, just as the Parisian catacombs were in the same period. However, during the Second World War, the caves became the largest deep air-raid shelter outside London, offering protection to over 1500 people during the Blitz. Once the war ended, Chislehurst caves adopted a more celebratory function, serving as a venue for dances and concerts throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd all played concerts here.

(Credit: Loz Pycock)

Camberwell Nuclear Bunker

Location: Vestry Road and Peckham Road, Camberwell, London, SE5 8UA
Website:
Camberwell Bunker

Make your way to the corner of Vestry Road and Peckham Road in the artsy neighbourhood of Camberwell, and you’ll find the remains of one of the now-disused Southwark Borough control bunkers constructed during the cold war. Located below the old building, the bunker was built as a place to continue local government operations during a nuclear attack.

At the height of the cold war, London was divided into four sections. Each of these was then subdivided into individual boroughs, each with its own control centre and bunker. Despite being uninhabited for decades, the bunker remains largely intact.

The land above is still awaiting redevelopment, and the stairway into the bunker had been filled in with concrete, meaning there is a six-foot drop onto the steps. Once you’re inside, however, you’ll find an expansive labyrinth featuring generator rooms, control rooms with ‘incident maps’ and communication rooms with switchboards and other telecommunications hardware. It’s a pretty claustrophobic and muggy environment, but well worth a look.

London Mithraeum

Location: 12 Walbrook, London EC4N 8AA
Website: London Mithraeum

Discovered in 1954, the London Mithraeum is one of the most significant archaeological sites from the days of Roman-occupied Britain. This ancient temple to the cult deity Mithras is located below Bloomberg’s European headquarters and showcases an astonishing selection of roman artefacts as well as the mysterious subterranean temple itself.

Mithraeums are common in much of the former Roman Empire, but this is the only one discovered in the UK. The secretive orders that worshipped and feasted in these temples often built them into natural occurring caves, transforming them into neat crypts, the designs of which reflected the image of the cosmos.

The cult of Mithras appeared in Rome around the 1st century AD and quickly spread across the Empire. It was an exclusively male sect, attracting soldiers, merchants and imperial administrators. The temples were dark, windowless, and designed to be hidden in plain sight. To this day, the mythological scene of Mithras killing a bull that decorates the walls of the Mithraeums remains a mystery. You can visit the London Mithraeum for free.

(Credit: Wikimedia)

St Bride’s Crypt

Location: Fleet St, London EC4Y 8AU
Website: St Bride’s Church

The church that currently occupies the site of St Bride’s Church on Fleet Street is just one of the many historic churches that have stood there over the centuries. The one that you can see today was built by Christopher Wren in the late 17th century, but the first was probably built sometime around the 6th century.

In 1672, Wren was asked to design a replacement for the medieval church that had just been lost to the Great Fire Of London. He built his new structure atop the remains of eight previous ruins, including seven crypts and a medieval charnel house. These crypts were used up until the 1954 cholera epidemic when so many were dying that the graveyards risked overflowing. However, they were later shut down to stop the spread of disease.

They remained hidden until the 1950’s when workers rebuilding Wren’s church – which had been shelled heavily during the Blitz – discovered a series of crowded burial chambers. Following excavations, they found the remains of 227 people, who had been interested from the 17th century onwards. They also found 7000 human remains in the nearby charnel house, where remains from medieval graveyards were moved to free up space during the Black Death.

(Credit: Wikimedia)

Euston’s lost tunnels

Location: 14 Melton St, London, NW1 2EA
Website: London Transport Museum

Next to one of London’s busiest tube stations, there lies a tunnel frozen in time. The footsteps of commuters haven’t been heard down here since the 1960s but intrepid explorers can still be found wandering these long passages.

These tunnels were originally part of the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway, one of two original underground lines serving Euston mainline station. Opened in 1907, this line shared an interconnecting passageway with the City and South London Railway. However, the station buildings were closed in 1914 when the lines came under the control of the same company. In the early 1960s, the lines were unified (although under different names), and the interconnecting passageway was rendered obsolete.

Today, the tunnel is something of a time capsule. It has never been redecorated or cleaned, so the walls are still lined with advertising posters from the 1960s, many of which are still readable despite not being looked at for 60 years.

(Credit: Flickr)